NaPoMo, Day 4: Dulce et Decorum Est

It’s Day 4 of National Poetry Month, and here at The Read Room I am mid-way through Reading Week (in which I read 10 poems a day and share/discuss my favorite).

Today’s featured poem is this:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*.

*Note: the translation of this Latin phrase is “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”

Observations

With this poem I reiterate some of my previous observations: that nouns and verbs trump adjectives like the blast of ocean spray trumps putting a seashell to one’s ear. Instead of weak descriptors like “exhausted” and “chaotic” we get hard details: bent like old beggars under sacks, cursing through the sludge and Gas! Gas! an ecstasy of fumbling– helmets– stumbling– floundering in fire or lime.

There’s good sound play here, with an ear-pleasing ABAB CDCD rhyme. It may not have been done intentionally, but I find it an interesting aesthetic choice to use a rhyme scheme so reminiscent of childhood and nursery rhymes (and innocence, by extension) for a tenor such as war. I find this effective for underscoring the last four lines: the corruption of innocence in the lacey lie that to die for one’s country is an act of glory.

Indeed, perhaps more than for the technical/structural qualities, I chose to share this poem today for its topic– war– and to make the simple statement that, in a world full of contentious issues and commentary on them, poetry can be the perfect vehicle for reaching readers. It is brief, relative to memoirs and documentaries and even news reports, but just like this poem did it packs a punch. Sometimes a single line can sting and break more than endless news coverage, protests, death tolls, etc.

Here is today’s complete selection. Favorites are starred. (Read “Vulture” if nothing else. SO GOOD!)

From The Norton Anthology of Modern & Contemporary Poetry, Vol. 1, Third Edition:

  1. “Vulture” by Robinson Jeffers**
  2. “The Tropics of New York” by Claude McKay
  3. “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen**
  4. “Oscar Wilde” by Dorothy Parker*
  5. “Suicide’s Note” by Langston Hughes*

From The Poetry of Robert Frost, Edited by Edward Connery Lathem:

  1. “Acquainted with the Night”**
  2. “Nothing Gold Can Stay”*
  3. “A Considerable Speck”*
  4. “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration” (“The Gift Outright”)
  5. “A Reflex”*
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